By Truman C. Wang
At twenty-four, Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho commands an ample technique and admirable sensibility for the music rare among pianists of any age. In his Walt Disney Concert Hall recital debut on Wednesday, October 24, Cho played to a capacity audience eager to be enraptured by a piano god with K-Pop star good looks, and he did not disappoint them.
Debussy’s Images, Books 1 and 2, opened each half of the program like a refreshing, delectable antipasto, where grace, beauty of timbre, and digital skills were most happily balanced in Cho’s playing. Like a skillful magician, Cho used Debussy’s extensive pedal effects to conjure up dreamy, foglike, mysterious sounds of water (Reflets dans l’eau), gamelan (Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut), or a perfumed bygone era (Hommage à Rameau), with occasional flashes of brilliance like the full moon breaking through dense night clouds. (Mouvment, Poissons d’or).
As fine as Cho’s Debussy was, his Chopin made for an even more engaging listening. The A-flat major Ballade No. 3 had a wide dynamic range and a limpidity that informed its quaver runs or the effortless singing line. The Polonaise Fantasy, Op. 61 showed the impressionistic coloring of Debussy and the dramatic lyricism of Chopin. In the four movements of Sonata No. 3, Cho demonstrated his ability to grasp large architectural blocks and turn them into a monument of classical grace and poetry.
Two contrasting encores – Debussy’s Claire de Lune, Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No 10 – were enthusiastically received by the audience.
Honorable mention must also go to Mr. Cho’s Steinway – an agreeable, protean instrument with much character of its own, capable of filling the Disney Hall with a fine mist or a flood of sounds.
Cho won first prize at the 2015 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the first Korean to do so in the Competition’s ninety-year history. The judges awarded first prize not to a hard hitter, or to a conventionally ‘big’ pianist, but to a poet. Last night’s recital showed Seong-Jin Cho to be a worthy successor to former first prize winners Martha Argerich (1965), Maurizio Pollini (1960) and Dang Thai Song (1980).
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.